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Macedonia Has Its Own #MeToo Movement — #ISpeakUpNow — and It Is Gaining Momentum

Screenshots of some of the posts from the Macedonian initiative against sexual violence #ISpeakUpNow.

On January 16, a group of women from Macedonia started sharing their personal testimonies of sexual harassment by perpetrators in positions of power. On Facebook and Twitter, they used the hashtag “#ISpeakUpNow” – #СегаКажувам in Macedonian and #TaniTregoj in Albanian to connect the posts. This incited ‘a snowball effect’ with hundreds of people joining the movement.

As noted by respected Croatian portal Lupiga.com, “this is the first version of the #MeToo campaigns to gain traction in the Balkans.” More and more women, and also some men, have been sharing their own stories, and some have been sharing the stories of people who confided in them but are still too afraid of retribution or social stigma to speak up in public.

One of the first people to join the initiative was the writer Rumena Bužarovska, who wrote:

Имам 22 години и лежам пиштол гола на операциона маса во државна болница. Не знам зошто баш морам да сум гола. И ден денес не ми е тоа јасно. Доаѓа анестезиологот и застанува зад мене. „Охоoo, младо месо“, вика пред да ми шибне спинална анестезија. Од сите доктори и сестри во салата, никој ништо не кажува. #СегаКажувам #TaniTregoj

I'm 22 and lying stark naked on an operating table in the main State Clinical Center. I don't know why I had to be completely naked for that operation. To this day I still don't understand why. The anesthesiologist comes into the room and stands behind me. “Wo-hoo, young meat!” he exclaims before he injects the spinal anesthesia. The room is full of doctors and nurses, but they all keep silent. #ISpeakUpNow

Activist and scholar Irena Cvetkovik was also among the initial group who dared to speak up:

Додека студирав, еден професор, уште во прва година, ме канеше во својот кабинет, ми ветуваше дека ќе ме ангажира како демонстраторка, само доколку дојдам еден викенд надвор од Скопје со него. За мене испитот го закажа во недела, па од страв морав да одам со мајка ми. Утредента ми се јави на телефон и побара конече одговор за заедничкиот викенд. Собрав храброст, реков НЕ и тогаш тој ми рече: епа тогаш дај ми ја мајка ти на телефон можеби таа ќе сака. Се доверив на една професорка од истиот факултет, а таа ми рече- остај тоа, батали, на сите така прави, и онака сега ќе оди во пензија. #СегаКажувам

Beginning my junior year at university, a professor kept inviting me to his office, promising to hire me as teaching assistant if only I would join him for a weekend together outside of Skopje. He scheduled my exam on a Sunday and I was so afraid that I brought my mother with me. The next day he phoned me and demanded my final answer about the weekend together. I gathered up my courage and said “no” and then he said, “well then, let me talk to your mother, maybe she'll be willing.” I confided in a female professor from the same faculty but she told me to “leave it, it's no use, he does that to everybody, he'll go into retirement soon anyway. #ISpeakUpNow

Translator and feminist Ana Vasilevska conveyed the following experience:

Имам другарка која пред петанесетина години неколку пати мораше да биде хоспитализирана на психијатриски оддел. Кога ја посетував, настојувавме да зборуваме за нешта надвор од болницата и за тоа колку ќе биде подобро кога ќе заврши лекувањето.
При крајот на една средба, шепотејќи ми раскажа дека секогаш кога е на дежурство, еден член на персоналот и се потпикнува во болничкиот кревет среде ноќ. И „објаснувал“ дека е за да ја „освежи“ малку.
Јас #СегаКажувам дека се’ уште ме прогонува прашањето колку често се случува ваква грозна злоупотреба и како би завршило пријавувањето на надлежни институции и постапувањето на надлежните органи…
#СегаКажувам #TaniTregoj

Around fifteen years ago, a friend of mine had to be hospitalized at a psychiatric ward. When I would visit her, we would try to talk about things outside of the hospital and how everything will be better when her treatment ends.
At the end of one such visit, with a whisper, she told me that every time one of the staff members worked the night shift, he would sneak into her bed in the middle of the night. He “was explaining” to her that it's for her own good, to “freshen her up” a bit.
#ISpeakUpNow because I am still haunted by how often such horrible abuse takes place and what would be the outcome of reporting it to the competent authorities…

As hundreds of people were sharing the posts and/or writing about their experiences, some of the testimonies become more and more forthcoming with the details of the traumatic events. Some of them were shared using the “friends only” option, in particular, those that included memories of rape — many of which were unreported at the time.

Many people have voiced their opinions since the #ISpeakUpNow hashtag has taken the internet by storm. Besides unconditional expressions of support, some nominally supportive commentators complained that the posts didn't contain the names of the harassers. However, the lack of name calling is understandable because, apart from renewed violence, pointing the finger at an individual could lead to defamation lawsuits and fines. In order to contest libel lawsuits, one would have to prove the actual rape case, which might have happened 20 or 30 years ago without any physical evidence remaining.

 

The growing public discussion also gave rise the examination of other aspects of this taboo topic. For instance, the Facebook page “Gay Macedonia” posted:

Инспирирaн oд #MeToo и #СегaКaжувaм / #TaniTregoj гo пoстaвувaм прaшaњетo, штo се случувa вo oпштествo кaкo Републикa Мaкедoнијa кoгa геј дечкo или мaж е сексуaлнo вoзнемирен oд друг геј дечкo или мaж? Дуплa стигмa, дупoл прoблем? Дaли вooпштo нaшетo oпштествo е свеснo декa и oвa е реaлнoст вo секoјдневиетo?

Inspired by #MeToo and #СегaКaжувaм / #TaniTregoj I ask the question what happens in a society like Republic of Macedonia when a gay boy or man is sexually harassed by another gay boy or man? Double stigma, double problem? Are people aware that this is also part of everyday reality?

A show of support

Within days, the grassroots initiative “#I Speak Up Now” created such an impact that it also attracted the attention of established civil society organizations and state institutions. Some of them issued official expressions of support:

Foundation Open Society – Macedonia (FOSM) supports the initiative ##ISpeakUpNow and salutes the idea to break the silence and refuse to accept as normal sexual harassment and sexual violence.

Government institutions, including the Prime Minister, the Ministry of Labor and Social Policy, and the Ministry of Interior also expressed support for the initiative. For instance, the Ministry of Interior published the following Facebook post:

#СегаКажувам за повеќе храброст за пријавување на сексуално насилство и вознемирување, а повеќе пријави значат и повеќе можности за полицијата да го покрене системот за одговорност за насилниците.
Ги охрабруваме жртвите на сексуално мотивирани напади да не се повлекуваат пред стереотипите. Повлекувањето само ги потврдува.
#СегаКажувам за да бидат насилниците видливи и процесирани!

#ISpeakUpNow for more courage to report sexual violence and abuse, as more criminal charges mean more opportunities for the police to start up the system leading to the responsibility from the violators.
We encourage the victims of sexually motivated attacks not to succumb to stereotypes. Backing down only reinforces them.
#ISpeakUpNow so the perpetrators can be made visible and investigated!

The action was also supported by members of the international community.

Trolling and attempts at denial

While some negative reactions tried to undermine the initiative and the testimonies by asking “why now and not then,” implying that the women who were silent for a long time should continue to shut up, many men expressed genuine solidarity.

These days I read and often discuss the #ISpeakUpNow and I am not at all surprised with what I am reading, because I know what kind of perverted misogynous chauvinist fascist environment we live in.

As the hashtag grew even more popular, it began to attract the attention of social media trolls — many of whom have been serving the former right-wing populist VMRO-DPMNE ruling party as part of their propaganda machine. Anonymous profiles have been spamming the hashtag with a new form of manipulative tactics of ‘whataboutism‘. They claimed that the goal of the initiative is to divert attention from the political ‘rape of Macedonia’ as a result of the government's treasonous actions aimed at improving relations with the EU and NATO. Such tweets were then re-tweeted by similar anonymous profiles in a seemingly coordinated fashion.

Regular Twitter users, who use the social network under their own names, expressed outrage regarding this new form of abuse and renewed disrespect for the victims of sexual harassment.

To all those who use the #ISpeakUpNow campaign for party politics and imposing their political positions – you are too ridicilous! You are just one more reason why we are in this position.

The painter Jana Jakimovska also commented on this new wave of trolling:

#СегаКажувам #TaniTregoj е за искуствата на сексуално вознемирување кои треба да се прочитаат. Киднаперите на хаштагот и спрдаторите не се вредни за внимание. Самите се брукаат доволно – не мора никој тоа да го прави за нив. Апелирам истите да не ве демотивираат. Исто така ги охрабрувам моите другарки да прочепкаат по непријатните сеќавања. Потребно е да се зборува за да може потоа и да се делува.

#ISpeakUpNow is about experiences of sexual harassment which need to be read. Those who try to kidnap the hashtag or make immature jokes are unworthy of attention. They bring shame upon themselves with their actions, nobody should spend more energy on shaming them. I appeal to all of you, don't let them demotivate you. I also encourage my girl friends to reexamine their memories. First we need to speak about it, so we can then act accordingly.

Despite the backlash from trolls, the #ISpeakUpNow movement has mostly drawn support and applause for the survivors of sexual abuse who refuse to stay silent any longer. For many, translating the #ISpeakUpNow hashtag is a powerful way to bring the momentum and power of the #MeToo movement to Macedonia:

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